Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish activist who has been working with refugees across Europe. Over the past year she has started making short films with and about the people she has met through this work. Mog Kavanagh caught up with her to find out more.
Can you tell me a bit about the background to these films. Had you visited these locations before filming?
Prior to exploring film as a medium, I had been working for over a year with those on the move. I helped to organise the logistics for small mobile medical teams in Greece, the Balkans and Calais and worked with solidarity structures while there as a volunteer interpreter and extra pair of hands.
I had also lived in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon for over ten years, working with community development projects, so I speak Arabic- which was really useful in terms of trying to accompany (practically and emotionally) refugee and migrant communities.
Because of that, before going back to Lesvos to film The Sea Between Us, I had a good sense of the activists and volunteers I wanted to interview and during our time there we also met Ilham, Aisha, Sahar, Mohamed and all of the other folks who are featured in the documentary.
In the cumulatively fourteen years I spent working in Latin America and the Middle East, I have a total of six photos. I’d write about what I was witnessing, and about some of the incredibly strong, nuanced and brave community organisers I worked with, but a camera just felt too invasive. But over the past year, I’ve re-assessed that and have come to a place- within myself- that recognises that if done from a place of solidarity and accountability, it can be a powerful medium for archiving, providing a platform for more in-depth reflection, for advocacy and for enduring solidarity.
What made you want to share these stories?
The injustice of the situation. Witnessing the response of EU member states- which has had cohesion only around a policy of militarisation of borders and containment of people- it was so clear that these policies have direct causality with the deaths of thousands of people who have drowned or suffocated in the backs of lorries because of a lack of a safe and just means of passage. I also was deeply frustrated by the one-dimensional framing and portrayal of those on the move- either as objects of threat (in a right-wing narrative) or as subjects of pity or grief. I wanted to build a visual space where the multiple subjectivities of people on the move could be glimpsed- both as vulnerable victims of circumstances and conflicts that they had no control over but also as strong, enduring, nuanced, deeply compassionate survivors. And as an intersectional feminist, my focus was on trying to give a platform to some of the powerful women we met along the way, and subtly challenge reductionist stereotypes while doing so.
There are some very intimate moments in these films, could you talk a bit about the ethics of capturing such moments on film versus the importance of documenting them?
I sent the first and second cut of both films to everyone interviewed for both to get their feedback before doing the final cut. Their response was, in Samar’s words “We laugh and cry and laugh and cry everyday in this situation- it’s our reality”. I got permission from all those in the footage to use the two boat landing scenes of The Sea Between Us and the closing scene of The Border (where Samar is crying for a few seconds before she speaks of their endurance and resolve and demand for freedom of movement and the right to live in peace). At the time of the edit I thought it was an important context to build for the interviews that followed- a glimpse of the distress in order to convey how powerful their strength, composure, humour and fragile hopes were as they spoke.
It’s a fine line though. There’s so much room for exploitation, for over-exposure, so much power implicit in the filming and in the edit. It was something that as, a solidarity activist I was deeply conscious of and as an archivist/rookie documentary-maker I was on a learning curve with. I hope- and believe- that the consent and trust relationship went beyond the interviews- in peoples’ long distance participation in the edit.
But, having said that, I re-edited The Sea Between Us last week into a 22 minute version and cut out the seconds of vulnerability and just focused on the strength of the interviews. And that’s the version I’ll be screening, so my own jury is still out on whether even consent for footage to be used is enough. I now have long-distance friendships established with those featured in the four films and am trying to support them in terms of legal and solidarity networks where they ended up- in countries of destination or in limbo in camps in Germany. So, perhaps they don’t feel the same confidence they might have with a more conventional journalist to say that they only want to be framed in their resilience, not their pain- because of the friendship and humble support. But I hope, if I continue with film as a medium, that the trust built up allows participants to be honest about their own boundaries, in terms of how they’re represented and how they represent themselves. Self-agency is fundamental and is something that I hope was felt throughout.
How has the reception been so far?
Very positive. I think in a context where those on the move are oftentimes only portrayed in such a highly-mediated, reductionist way, having the time to sit and hear the hopes and frustrations and strength and pain that people carry with them, impacts viewers. That was the intention at least- to provide a visual platform for the stories of those making these incredibly difficult journeys and those working in solidarity with them to be better understood. And hopefully that witness can be used to raise awareness, widen empathy and catalyse more practical, enduring solidarity- with those seeking refuge and the humiliation they face- and also with the undocumented, those living through the injustice of Direct Provision and those struggling against ongoing racism in other contexts.
Watch The Sea Between Us on Vimeo now.